A year later, a bridge has risen

The Mississippi River is visible far below the concrete decks as workers approach completion of the new I-35W bridge.

Photo by Matt Mead

Minneapolis remembers tragedy as I-35W span nears completion

I-35W bridge ‘Sidewalk Superintendent Tours’
Every Saturday, beginning at 11 a.m. in the parking lot of Grandma’s Saloon, 1810 Washington Ave. S. Tours take about an hour and a half. For more information, visit www.mndot.gov or call the 35W Bridge Hotline at 612-236-6901.

The roadway bridging the east and west banks of the Mississippi River looks vastly different today than it did a year ago.

It’s no longer a crumpled mess tangled in itself, resting after its sudden collapse. Instead, it’s the majestic St. Anthony Falls Interstate 35W Bridge, the anticipated answer to the traffic problems and safety concerns that surfaced after its predecessor’s tumble.

The new bridge has now clearly taken shape and is nearly finished, far sooner than officials could have anticipated a year ago. Despite the accelerated time-frame, Minnesota Department of Transportation Project Manager Jon Chiglo insists safety is the top priority and that the project’s pace has not been a result of corner-cutting.

“Safety is our priority, quality is second, and schedule comes sometime after that,” he said from his riverside office near the construction site — project headquarters since work began. “That’s been our focus.”

Bridge project contractor Flatiron-Manson, in its bid, estimated the project would be complete Dec. 24. For every 10 days before then that it’s finished, the firm earns a $2 million incentive — up to $20 million — plus an additional flat sum of $7 million if it doesn’t request extra time to work on the project. (On the other hand, should Flatiron-Manson go past the Dec. 24 deadline, the firm would have to repay the state $200,000 a day.)

Money is actually saved in the end — even if the contractor gets the full $27 million incentive — when one compares the “road-user costs” of having the bridge closed, said Chiglo. Those costs, which reflect the added distance and delays related to the out-of-service bridge, were estimated at up to $400,000 a day, using a standardized formula — and with August 2007 gas prices, it should be noted.

Flatiron-Manson is expected to reap the early-finish bonus; the contractor has eyed Sept. 15 as the end date for the project, which is now more than 80 percent complete. MnDOT officials say the new bridge will open sometime between mid-September and mid-October.

Workers closed the gap on the main river span connecting the two ends of the bridge during the third week of July. Remaining work includes detail-specific elements such as lighting, installing the anti-icing system and painting the roadway, as well as troubleshooting to make sure everything is in working order before the bridge opens.
Because Flatiron-Manson stands to earn an extra $27 million for an early finish, and in part because of the widespread public surveillance of the project, progress and safety have been closely monitored.

A large contingent of safety inspectors walk the job site daily to size up potential hazards before they snowball into problems. The frequent visits are unusual even for a project of this size, but Chiglo said it’s a practice that could be applied to future projects to further guarantee safety.

And it’s especially important to take that kind of care, he said, because the public’s faith in Minnesota infrastructure fell alongside the first bridge.

“We’re working very hard at re-establishing public trust and confidence,” Chiglo said.
Their efforts have included offering weekly sidewalk tours across the 10th Avenue Bridge, which runs parallel to the rising bridge. Saturdays since last November, project managers have brought groups across the river to show them the construction site and answer questions. The tours have been popular, with attendance swelling to about 400 visitors over the 4th of July weekend.

The tours draw curious observers, but also bring out questions related to the bridge’s progress. It’s not uncommon to hear people express disbelief at how fast the bridge has risen above the river, but Chiglo said that unease is appeased by the availability of high-ranking and deeply involved construction personnel.

“By the time we get across [the bridge], I think those concerns are alleviated because we’re explaining the transparency of our process,” Chiglo said.

Tours are expected to continue through bridge construction.

Sen. Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, has strong ties to the community surrounding the fallen bridge and has so far been pleased with the smoothness and efficiency of the project.

“It appears this has been a good example of what can get done if you hire the right people,” the Senate majority leader said. “I hope that’s how history writes this.”

City, survivors and families envision memorial

And as the bridge collapse settles firmly into Minnesota history, survivors and victims’ families are working with Mayor R.T. Rybak’s office to establish a permanent memorial to commemorate those most impacted by the catastrophe.

Since last fall, a group has convened to determine what kind of memorial would be appropriate, and where it should be placed. So far, details are scarce, and there’s plenty of planning left to do, said Jeremy Hanson, communications director for Rybak.

“Mayor Rybak is supportive of a memorial to help remember those lost, as well as the loss the entire community felt that day,” Hanson said. “The most important thing is that family members themselves are a part of the process and drive the direction of this.”
There’s no set timeline for plans to be finalized, and details will need to be worked out among the city, Park Board, state and others once the actual memorial and its placement are selected.

Funding could come from private fundraising or public dollars, and Rybak has promised to help collect money that might be needed from individual donors.
The only certainty of the memorial at this point is that the group has decided the memorial should not be on, beneath or anywhere in the footprint of the new bridge.

“There’s such a negative emotional reaction to that,” Hanson said. “It’s one thing to definitely not pursue.”

last revised: August 5, 2008